Lost in the moment again
Stuck where the road has no end
Keeping the thought in our minds
One day life will be kind


Whether or not it’s about your real home or an imagined one, the idea of ‘home’ is one of warmth, comfort, and security. COVID has added a strange twist to the picture, but it shouldn’t taint it for long. As with anything, being at home is a good thing when in moderation.

It is this sense of moderation that makes the locations in Fumito Ueda‘s games so homely, even though they always feel a bit intimidating, foreign even, in their large scale.

The Nest in The Last Guardian, for instance, is a large valley with peculiarly steep walls, so much so that the valley juts out of the earth like a colossal bowl. There is no way in or out save by the air and it is through this ruinous place that the protagonist tries to navigate. While much of the game’s story presents this place as hostile, with ghostly suits of armor forever trying to capture the boy, there is still an ethereal serenity in the air. In the moments where there are no bridges collapsing or frantic pursuits, it is pleasant to to take a solid fifteen minutes doing nothing but enjoying the trees. Yes, the boy is trying to get back to his village; he went to sleep in his bed only to wake in a damp cave. But the landscape has a strong presence, and at every moment it seems to be asking him to pause, be still, and be observant.

If only we did these three little things, starting today, and then into the weeks to come, we too would find the world a little less aggressive.

ICO, Ueda’s first game released in 2001, presents a similar venue. Where Guardian has silvery skies, flocking birds, and white, cold stone, ICO has a browned, sun-bathed castle. Guardian‘s forested valley is in the middle of a continent. Comparatively, ICO‘s castle is in the midst of the sea, only joined to the mainland by a retractable span. One is just as much of a cage as the other, but each has its own, uncanny beauty.

I have never played ICO, but the images that come to mind are of a young, horned boy gently leading a girl clothed in white. Windmills lazily rotating in the salt-sprayed breeze. Old stone doors that refuse to open. Gates with spheres of light. And a dark queen, helped by dozens of shadowy apparitions that were once horned humans like the boy. The apparitions try to pull the girl away, but like the boy in Guardian who has his giant, feathered friend to protect him, the boy in ICO has means of pushing back the darkness.

Shadow of the Colossus, too, has its foreboding yet comforting places. The Forbidden Lands is the peninsula to which the wanderer comes carrying a deceased, young woman. He is told that to revive her, he must search the lands for sixteen giants and slay them. Riding out to meet this challenge proves just as monumental as the battles. The Shrine of Worship that stands at the center of the lands is, by far, the tallest stone structure. And the bridge that connects it to the land’s only exit is equally impressive.

What makes this place feel like home, though, is that they become Wander’s. He is the only living human in the entire land, and much of his time is not in fighting Colossi, but in riding and finding them. The land becomes more and more familiar, and at times it feels like it is his territory.

Another thing that makes the Forbidden Lands so homely is that, aside from the giants, there are no enemies. An eerie silence and emptiness is what the earth greets you with. It is interesting. The nature of the place makes a carefree attitude seem silly, yet if Wander does not wish to fight, hunt, or kill anything, he doesn’t have to. It is possible to enter the story and not encounter a single giant. The plot won’t progress and, the young woman will never have the hope of being resurrected, but it is an option nonetheless.

With his release of Guardian, it seems that Ueda has learned to polish his balance between times of danger and times of refuge, not only in their amount and overall ratio, but in their variety. Their progression feels very natural. It makes sense when the boy is unable to cross a gap because the world in which he walks has undergone what feels like centuries of story and time.

On the surface, it appears that Ueda isn’t particularly attached to the themes of his world; he destroys bridges and stairs simply to give the player an obstacle to overcome. What he’s implying though is that the worlds exist, fully formed, before he builds a ‘game’ into them. Unlike reality, there’s no need for a game to have a pre-existing staircase before destroying it. He could design a number of challenges and build the world to fit them. He could, in fact, design levels with no staircases at all. Instead, he makes games in decayed environments because it’s seemingly inconceivable for him to create structures without their own internal logic.

Jacob Geller

In other words, his worlds operate by a consistent and realistic code. It doesn’t mean they are predictable–far from it. Rather, I find that though the design of each location adamantly refuses to spoon-feed you clues, once you have taken the time to find what you need, the rules make sense. If you think a barrel should be able to fit through a space, it seriously could. Want to go into that room? Climb that column? Cross that barrier? Try it! He wants you to be curious. Unlike releases of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda where most rooms in the buildings are “locked and cannot be opened” (because there really isn’t a room on the other side–it’s just a set piece), Ueda lets you go wherever and anywhere you want. Really. The Last Guardian, for example, is known as a title where every inch of space in the map is completely used. Nothing is explained but everything is available. As such, the logic to the correct solution adds up in a satisfying, reasonable way.

I might have digressed about set design, but it still plays into the ideal of ‘home.’ To recap, Ueda’s worlds are intimidating, dangerous, falling into decay from centuries of history, and are otherwise inhospitable. On the other hand, the ability to move forward with the journey or simply stay put to admire the clouds is entirely up to you. As is the ability to go essentially anywhere you want. There is choice and there is freedom. The catch? It all operates under constraints and rules, such as, say, the inability for humans to fly. The boy’s giant pet can fly, though. So while there are constraints, they are not imprisoning, and they actually allow for a great deal of creativity in developing solutions. They also allow things to make sense. There is a comfort to this.

Home is a familiar place where you know the people under the same roof, share experiences with them, learn from them, and love or maybe hate them. These people behave a certain way and believe certain things. So they won’t suddenly act like a different person from one day to the next. Similarly, there is a set routine or schedule, however strict or lax. The world outside of ‘home’ may be more fun or exciting–less restricting, even–but it will never replace having a safe place, a home base, the nest you make out of the blankets on your bed.

Ueda takes the scariness of the real world and combines it with elements of that warm, inviting place. He invites us to pause, be still, and be observant. To experience the joys and deep pains of the world, but not dwell in the darkness forever. It is a unique combination that I have yet to find elsewhere.

Here is how to credit the header image…

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